Review: Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

Book: Magonia
Author: Maria Dahvana Headley
Pages: 309
Genre: YA, Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Published: 2015, HarperCollins
Rating: ★★★★

“Aza Ray is drowning in thin air. 

Since she was a baby, Aza has suffered from a mysterious lung disease that makes it ever harder for her to breathe, to speak—to live. 

So when Aza catches a glimpse of a ship in the sky, her family chalks it up to a cruel side effect of her medication. But Aza doesn’t think this is a hallucination. She can hear someone on the ship calling her name.”

So. Something that really bothers me:

Chronic Illness


When I was told a few months ago that I have some sort of weirdly un-diagnosable as-of-right-now chronic illness, I went in search of the one thing that has always comforted me throughout all the twists and turns in my life: books.

And no, I don’t have a fatal disease, or anything nearly as bad as cancer or MS or ALS, but it is debilitating. I’ve had to put my life on hold in a lot of ways, had to give up a lot of things I love to accommodate how my body has now chosen to work (or not work). So I went searching, desperately, for books that would show me there was more to being sick than just feeling broken. That I could still have a life, even though it wouldn’t be the life I’ve always anticipated having. I wanted to be shown that characters with chronic illnesses could still have friends and hobbies and be badass and, perhaps most importantly, could be protagonists.

And what did I find? The completely disheartening fact that people think when you’re writing characters that are chronically ill, the book has to be ABOUT the fact that the characters are chronically ill. No more, no less. Me Before You and The Fault in Our Stars are two more recent books with characters who are living with illness or disability, and it doesn’t even matter to some people what happens in the books. They’re termed ‘books about disability,’ or ‘books about cancer’ like nothing else happens. You get diagnosed, and you’re done.

Then, of course, there are the fantasy books that start out with characters that have chronic illnesses, then magic them away by the fourth chapter. Let me tell you something, as much as I wish I could, I can’t magic away my illness. This is not helpful to me.

So when I came across Magonia, a fantasy YA, I thought to myself, hopefully this one will be different. Hopefully it won’t magic it away, and you know what? I don’t think it does.

The first two chapters of the book, I was really unsure. The writing seemed meandering, I couldn’t see the plot. By the third chapter, I was hooked. I read it in the span of 48 hours, and would have read it in less if I hadn’t had other things to do.

It was simply beautiful. I won’t spoil any of it for you (I might write a more in-depth review in the future), because I want you to read it. You need to read it.

So. Some of the things that should make you want to read this book:

  • The protagonist, Aza, has a loving family
    • Almost as trope-y as the magicking away the illness is the magicking away of the family, cutting all ties to the mundane and freeing the character up to join in some completely different world. That does not happen here, and it’s great: “My parents are the kind of parents people wish they had” she says.
    • Also, Jason’s mums = the best kind of people.
  • Global warming and environmental issues are one of the main themes

“Because every time someone finds a new animal, or a new amazing thing on earth, it means we haven’t broken everything yet.”

  • As well as enslavement/free will
  • Her best friend, Jason, has pov chapters, and they’re great.
    • I can’t say much, but wow. This boy. I do not want to spoil, but there are alligator costumes involved. I maybe cried a lot about how there is a Jason Kerwin-sized hole in my life.
  • The writing plays around with text formatting and words and symbols in some really interesting ways (best seen rather than explained):
    • (I swear I want that HOME thing as a tattoo)


  • It plays with history (in really cool, world-building ways)
    • The research the characters do on Google can indeed be Googled in real life.

And, as I said before, the illness is not magicked away. Some people might want to fight me on this, but as I’m pointedly not-spoiling right now, I won’t say how. I’ll just say why, and you might not get this if you haven’t read it, but stay with me.

Remember in Percy Jackson, how demi-gods had ADHD and dyslexia, and it was explained as the result of their battle reflexes and natural disposition to read Ancient Greek? This is similar (Note that I don’t have ADHD nor dyslexia, and therefore my opinions cannot be valued in the same terms as people who do live with those things; I’m just trying to shed some light on how this technique also works in Magonia).

Anyway – some may say that it’s altering the disability to the point of it not being a disability anymore, and therefore not being proper representation anymore, but I don’t see it that way. It’s fantasy. It reimagines things as other things. Illness becomes recontextualized into something that says, ‘So you’re different. That’s a part of you, and it’s not a bad thing. You’re still you.’ It doesn’t conveniently delete it. It’s still there. It just makes it less about how it hinders you and more about how it’s a part of you.

I find that incredibly comforting. I know other people do, too. Part of fantasy is imagining yourself as a part of these worlds, and this takes something that is a big deal to me and makes me feel lighter about it.

Also, just so you know, this has some subtext (not sure if it’s intentional or not) for me at least:

“Even people who’ve never seen a miracle can believe in miracles, Aza Ray… I believe you. Your family’s going to believe you too.”

“But I’m not me.”

“You ARE you.”

So Aza’s illness is pretty visible. But for people with other mystery illnesses, particularly invisible ones (autoimmune disorders, etc.), they run into a lot of A. doctors saying they don’t know what’s wrong with you, when it’s their job to know what’s wrong with you; B. moments when you feel relatively fine and consequently think you’re making it all up; C. moments when you doubt you’re still you.

So saying ‘I believe you’ is just about the most comforting thing someone could say. Not ‘I believe in you’ as in ‘you can get through this, I believe in you’ but as in ‘I believe you when you tell me you’re hurting’. It reinforces the fact that there are people who still support and love you unconditionally.

And this is such a big thing in Magonia. It makes my heart swell a little just thinking about it. So read it, and you can [{(((               )))}] it as much as I do.

PS. I apologize if anything in this review comes off as ableist. I genuinely tried to do my research and use proper terminology. If I missed anything, please message me and I’ll correct it!

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I'm Emma Kath. Welcome to my blog! This is where I post my original book reviews, litstyle (lifestyle for the lit-nerd), and other bookish things. A little about me: I'm Canadian, and currently a student majoring in English lit and cultural studies. I'm an introvert (INFJ, if you believe in that sort of thing), sarcastic to the bone, I love art and history, and hope to one day travel around a bit. Until then, I'll be reading, writing, and trying to spread a little kindness around the internet. If you have any questions or inquiries, feel free to contact me!

5 thoughts on “Review: Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

  1. What a terrific review!!! I came in here because you followed my blog, and I’d heard about Magonia recently and thought I’d check your review out. Now I HAVE to follow you back because you’re fabulous!
    I recently found out that I have a chronic illness, it took about 2 years since I first got sick and got an actual diagnosis 2 months ago. So I know just what you’re talking about. Now I’ve got to look up this book. It’s on top of my TBR 😉


  2. This sounds like a great read. Your review is really wonderful.
    I, myself suffer from a chronic illness, one that is rare at my age. I was fourteen when I found out. It isn’t something as big as Cancer or other well known diseases, but I see the compromises I have to make and how I have to shape my life and actions in it’s wake. I can completely understand your position.
    Have a Good Day and thank you for the follow. Your blog is fantastic. I had to follow back 🙂
    Hope to more of your great content in the time to come 🙂


    1. Thanks so much! 😊 And thank you for sharing your story, I’m so sorry to hear about your illness, that’s so young! It’s nice to meet other bloggers that are going through similar things though. I hope you’re having a lovely day as well, and I hope you enjoy the book if you end up reading it! 😄


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